Thursday, May 31, 2012

A young humboldt fog

At long last this blog is the first hit I get when I google "whatsdavineating"!

Two nights ago, I was fiddling around with a start of a novel, and I came up with some details that got me excited for the first time in a few weeks. Here are the draft paragraphs:

The fountains brimmed for the event. On the south side the water shot up from saucer bases and leaped above emerald lights before tumbling down again. On the north side a long rectangular pool displayed two parallel rows of arching water, each shooting to the opposite side and rippling the double helix depicted in mosaic tiles at the bottom. The auditorium itself glowed with orange and pink lights that showcased its white cylindrical form surrounded by a dozen thin pillars and topped with a shallow cone. It was named Beckman Auditorium, but most of the campus referred to it as the “Wedding Cake,” and that was the label that was the most helpful for new students trying to orient themselves with recognizable landmarks.
They were only a week into the fall quarter. The season in Pasadena was marked by a crisp wind that shook the waxy brown leaves from the magnolia trees and the pointed brown leaves of the liquid amber trees and dragged them rattling across the pebbled walks. The jacarandas were bare, their flood of purple flowers long since bloomed and fallen and swept away. Longtime residents were recognizable because they were the only ones wearing sweaters or jackets, their shoulders shrugged, their hands shoved into their pockets. The students from out of state still wore tank tops and shorts; they saw the season as a paradise compared to their hometowns of Ann Arbor or Boston or Princeton. It took most people a couple of years before the chill reached their bones and until they would complain that their bodies had finally adjusted to the weather.
For weeks the winds had rattled the oversized posters advertising the event. President Chameau had ordered them himself, and they had enjoyed a longer life than most of the other flyers on the cork boards around campus. Unlike the purple Xeroxes promoting the ballroom dance club or the white sheets with tear-off email addresses offering used furniture, the campus had shown some respect for the posters that must have come from their pride of the new recruits themselves.  
The night’s event was novel. President Chameau was celebrating the arrival of three new assistant professors who had been heavily recruited by top universities throughout the country over the past year. They were a diverse trio that would do nothing to provide a focal point for the small university, and yet the President saw them as part of the collective whole, three bright young minds buzzing with the potential to change the world.
Two lines had formed…

Here's what I like about the paragraphs.

First, although I don't necessarily love opening the way I did it, I like the fountains because they are subtly sexual and fertile sounding, like Aphrodite rising from the froth. I want these three new professors to come off as godlike in the beginning. I'm also playing with a real setting and accurate descriptions, something I rarely do.

I'm happy with the transitions between paragraphs too. Usually I am more willing to jump around, but for now, in this initial draft, I want to play with more smoothness. (I blame SGFB.)

Lastly, the thing that actually got me excited is a little part about the posters enjoying a longer life on the cork boards. That strikes me as magical somehow, that there is some untouchable essence hovering around the characters. That little bit is enough to get me to try a few more paragraphs to see where this goes.

I haven't decided who these three stars are yet, but I have plans for what will happen while they are on stage, and I'm excited about that. Next, I want to describe the people attending. There will be the rich and old, and the young and brilliant, mixing together in the auditorium.

What's Peanut eating? Nothing but kibble so far today.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Estrogen and eggs

For an upcoming project at work I've had the pleasure of researching important scientists from World War II. I've been reading about Alan Turing, who invented the conceptual "Turing Machine" that was the foundation for the modern computer. Turing was a mathematician and cryptologist who also helped to break German codes for England. The concept of the computer seemed to emerge while he was in school. He had a crush on a classmate who suddenly died, and in an effort to find the lost soul of his friend, he started thinking about finding minds inside machines. Then, later on in his life, he was arrested for having sex with a man and was forced to take estrogen injections. He started to research morphogenesis. This really is a story of a man who kept looking to science to solve his own emotional hardships.

There's also Rita Levi-Montalcini, who was hiding from the Nazis. To be able to continue her research, she turned to eggs because they were one of the few biological samples she could get and also because she could eat them afterwards.  She did research on embryonic development in her own home.

These are amazing stories that are more exciting than anything my own mind has been able to come up with, and I am trying to figure out how I can make my work more exciting as a result. I'm also toying with the idea of using these scientists' stories to build my own narrative. A book about the scientists of World War II would be amazing if done well. It's probably already been done. I haven't checked yet.

What's Peanut eating? Aged cheddar

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Last night my Lulu copy of The Pagani Project arrived. It's always fun for me to see the bound version because I read the manuscript in a different way as a result. I'm more critical of the flow of the prose and more sensitive to the actual emotional impact of the scenes. Even though I've revised 3 or 4 chapters since I first ordered this version, including the addition of about 3,000 words, it's still useful for me and well worth the $15 it takes to get it. And $15 is a lot right now since I'm paying a mortgage and have had to add a dog walker to my budget!

During my bus ride this morning, I read several chapters of the book. I'm responding really strangely to it because, I guess, it's different from the way I wrote before. As I was writing I experimented with different techniques, and I had forgotten about a lot of it. So now that I'm reading it, the experimental nature is coming to the forefront again.

Distance - One thing I played with is distance. This was fairly unintuitive to me because usually I think the smartest advice is to make the action feel close so that readers can experience it on a sensory level. But there are a lot of sections where I didn't do that in the book. For one, I talk a lot about habitual scenes, recurring things, rather than individual experiences. I felt that was important to make it feel like a lot of time has passed. Second, I was playing with the idea that a 300-year-old person would start to lose a lot of the smaller details. So, there are generalities throughout. Third, a lot of what the narrator reports comes from indirect information, and I really played with that idea. Some news stories are so strange as a result of the writer's attempt to reconstruct the scene. There are often jumps in logic, when a person does something that doesn't get explained. I included some of that in my scenes.

On one level, I worry that all of these devices only work to keep a reader from really getting into the story. On another level, the prose feels like it's carrying more weight behind it to me. Even though there are a lot of non-scenes, I find myself getting immersed in the prose because it feels like I'm getting information through these different layers of reporting (a story told by someone who heard the story from someone). This morning that was working for me, and I hope it works for other people too.

Reality - The premise of the book is beyond belief: Six people live for hundreds of years because they are connected to this special machine. I balanced that with a lot of things that seemed real. One of the ideas behind the book is that America has changed. It's like other dystopian books in that way, but my dystopia is far less bleak than most. But one of the things I did was move real events around the world. For example, a lot of violent crimes that took place internationally are now happening in the U.S. That way, I was able to create both the sense of reality (real crimes) with unreality (occurring much closer to home). I hope this also adds to the sense that a lot of time has passed. Think Planet of the Apes. Another way I played with reality is that I formed bridges between different past events, so that different crimes lead to other crimes in a way that didn't necessarily happen in real life. A scientists has parts of his personality that are reminiscent of Hitler. Suicide bombers have teamed up with a Jonestown-like cult leader. I didn't realize this at the time, but I think that came out of my own need to set up a bit of a "warning" about the future.

Well, I don't know if these concepts come to the forefront for people reading the book, but as I'm going over it now, I'm reminded that these were some of the mechanistic inspirations I was working with.

The other benefit of getting the Lulu book is that the manuscript feels "completed" even though I'm still working on it. As a consequence, I feel like I'm floating, and that makes me hungry to weigh myself down with a new project. I get the same feeling when I'm between reading books. I'd much rather be in the middle of stories than on either end. So, it motivates me to write something new.

What's Peanut eating? Small white crumbs on the elevator floor.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Salty Nuts

The first time I ever heard the phrase "soup to nuts" was in a graduate school seminar given by a visiting professor. The professor was very conservative and tame-looking, which became relevant as we left asking why he had suddenly said "stupid nuts" or "zipped up nuts" as he was describing his research. We all learned a little something that day.

I'm not sick anymore! Well, I'm less sick anyway, and I'm back at work. brain is functioning, something that wasn't happening on Tuesday and Wednesday. Fevers always make me have the weirdest dreams.

Last night, as I was skimming through Cyberlama and highlighting some key points on a storyline that I wanted to make sure I didn't drop, I thought of a new ending that I feel much more satisfied with. It better encapsulates a point I have been wanting to emphasize, and it better emphasizes a point I have been wanting to encapsulate. It even opened up a little spot where I get to talk about anaerobic bacteria and alternate electron acceptors--something that will amuse at least ten people who may eventually read the book. It's all about readership, folks!

The downside to the new ending, which hasn't actually been written yet, is that it's no longer a happy one. Damn it, I want to write a book with a happy ending that doesn't come out of nowhere! But it feels like the right ending for the first time, and now all I need to do is come up with a way to report it gracefully.

In other news, I finished reading a book called White Horse, that I consider to be McCarthy's The Road with fresher breath, and I'm now reading Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which--wow--is so much more erotic than anything I've read in a long time even though there has been hardly any nudity or sex (yet?). My vast readership might recall that it was a high school English assignment based on Madame Bovary that got me to write honest fiction for the first time in my life. I can't totally figure out why, but I'm more engaged with M.B. than I was with the last half of W.H. even though little is happening in M.B. while the whole world was destroyed and then some in W.H. I don't think it's just literary snobbishness. I think it has to do with storytelling. I'm not even loving most of Flaubert's prose, as it is coming off a bit too listy, but somehow the order with which he is delivering information makes me more excited to find out what happens next. The first half of W.H. did this very well too. Or maybe it's about continuity--This is a topic for another post.  

What's Peanut eating? Spring Mix. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Tootsie Pop

One 4th of July, I was sitting in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena waiting for the sun to set so that the fireworks display would begin. I was 25, and I was in the midst of a quarter life crisis. I had told myself that by 25 I would have made up my mind about my career and I would have finished my first novel. Neither one of those things happened. My dogs were getting old, and I was also waiting to figure out how they would die.

So, here I am at the stadium, and a kid several rows ahead of me accidentally lets go of his white balloon. It floats up into the sky while he gets comforted by his mom. I was fixated on unfolding paths. Where was I going? How would my dogs die? So, while I was wrestling with these ideas, I somehow got it into my head that I would stare at the balloon until it disappeared. I wanted to see the end of the story. I wanted to see if it just got smaller and smaller until it became nothing. That was a foreign concept to me. I had never followed anything through like that before.

I looked. I squinted. My eyes watered. I never realized how painful it actually was to look up at the sky for any extended period of time. Over and over again I was tempted to give up. The balloon kept going higher and higher, and I kept waiting for that magic moment when the something would become the nothing.

I realize now that this has been an important theme in my life. I often say that nothing ever happens in my stories. The reason that's true is because I'm fascinated by the idea of natural endings to life, the limits of nature. Thinking about Wild Grass, both the title story and "Red Man, Blue Man" deal with that issue. The original concept of The Pagani Project--six people signing up to live forever--also deals with that issue.

But, like life, I question if this is an experiment in distraction. What happens to me (and I think what happens in life) is that our attention gets pulled in different directions as we wait to see how things naturally unfold. I can't pinpoint the balloon disappearing. It probably got dark before it happened--I don't remember. In my stories, I wonder if, as I'm pulling my characters closer to the limits of nature, I'm just adding in distracting scenes that make me stray from the path of finding what I'm actually looking for. The Pagani Project has an end, but it doesn't really deal with the moment of the disappearing balloon. Instead, as I was writing, I kept adding in scenes that felt real, and those are the scenes that fill the book. Maybe my search for the limits of nature has set me up to be distracted by my own natural limits.

What's Peanut eating? A green plastic fish with red eyes. He didn't swallow.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

An old slice of toast

Today, for the first time, I'm handing out The Pagani Project to two writer's group friends to read. I've been keeping the book fairly private, but these women have already read some of it during our meetings, so it's not as much of a reveal to them.

I waited until the last minute to print it out. And, as I was scrambling to find 3-hole punch paper and binders, I accidentally discovered drafts of two of my previous novels, Rooster and The Mourning of Satellites. Seeing the second book was particularly surprising, as I wrote it back in 2001 or 2002 and haven't really thought about it since. I flipped through some pages and saw some hand written notes. The material was still familiar.

A wave of disappointment went through me. In at least twelve years I've only finished these three novels, and I'm not sure any of them are good. I tried to get an agent to represent Rooster, but I gave up after 20 or so tries. I felt mortal. I felt like I would never finish my climb up the mountain. My sadness was a calm one. In some ways, I felt like I was at the end of my life looking back and realizing all the dreams I never got around to accomplishing. It was overly dramatic, yes, but that's what I felt as I stacked up the old drafts and put them away.

Handing out The Pagani Project is helping me to move forward again. In the shower last night I got excited about my next work in progress. My friends will have at least a month to read the book. This is the third of a three-way exchange we've been doing. (I volunteered to go last to get more time.) I worry that PP is too elementary, too thin. I worry that the protagonist is dimensionless and that her motivations are unconvincing. I worry that my attempt to capture something that feels real resulted in the capture of something that feels boring.

But forward we go.

What's Peanut eating? A raisin.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at it. Then get it back down.

I remember someone teaching that to me during a lesson on plot. The idea was that your character had to face obstacles along its journey. (Yes, I'm referring to my character as "it" today. Epiphanic, I know.)

But I'm currently in the middle of a story where that very thing is happening. There aren't any trees, and there aren't any rocks per se,  but there is a character, and she is doing something, and things are getting in her way. For this particular story, though, it doesn't feel like enough. The metaphoric--metaphoric, not metamorphic--rocks aren't really big enough to leave any damage. Or at least they're not being thrown with enough speed or accuracy.

You know how in Anna Karenina, you know who does you know what? And in The Great Gatsby you know who you know whats into you know who? And in Romeo & Juliet, you know who thinks that you know who is you know what and so you know who you know whats and then you know who you know whats and sees you know who and then you know whats? That's what I'm talking about today.

I'm also talking about Aron Ralston losing his arm and Ada McGrath losing his finger and William Miller losing his virginity.

I think it's important to get your character up a tree. It's important to throw rocks at it. But I'd argue that it's also important to have one of those rocks hit the character and leave some sort of scar that can't be easily concealed by makeup or plastic surgery. The rock doesn't have to kill the character. It just needs to leave a permanent mark that ushers that character into a new stage in its life or nudges it into seeing the world through a different lens. Don't make it easy for your characters to recover from the challenges they face. Otherwise the story doesn't feel significant enough, and the drama doesn't build.

What's Peanut eating? A dry leaf. He didn't swallow.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Peanut butter and tomato sandwich

Yay for Michelle's release of her newest novel, The Breakaway! Michelle, I'm really proud of you, not just for this book, but for all of the hard work you have done recently and all of the great stories that have come from it!

What's Peanut eating? A peanut butter and tomato sandwich too! Okay, not really.